In his latest family portrait, Our Little Sister, Hirokazu Kore-eda chronicles roughly a year in the life of the Koda clan -- or what’s left of it. When, years ago, her father left for another woman and their mother abandoned the family to live her own life, the almost-thirty Sachi (Haruka Ayase) was forced to prematurely become a maternal figure to younger siblings Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and Chika (Kaho). The experience has hardened Sachi emotionally, a trait that finds its extreme opposite in the Kodas’ newest member: half-sister Suzu Asano (Suzu Hirose), their now-deceased father’s thirteen-year-old daughter, whom Sachi invites to live with them -- and who exudes all the open-heartedness she lacks.
Kore-eda, though, isn’t content to allow us to observe these character contrasts and draw these conclusions ourselves in his adaptation of Akimi Yoshida’s popular Japanese manga series Umimachi Diary. Instead, he has characters directly declaim such observations for our benefit. Still, Our Little Sister often vibrates with such tenderness of feeling that it’s difficult to dismiss outright. The four lead actresses’ excellent performances offset the script’s occasional heavy-handedness, with Kore-eda alive to their distinctive tics and gestures. No matter that plot here is relatively minimal, with only a temporary return of the mother who abandoned the siblings bringing anything like dramatic tension to the film. All one needs is a close-up of Suzu’s face euphorically looking skyward, eyes closed, as she rides along a road surrounded by cherry blossoms, to grasp the laudable humanity at the heart of Kore-eda’s patient, warmhearted worldview.